Across a Billion Years, by Robert Silverberg

Across a Billion Years, by Robert Silverberg coverGenre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Daw
Published: 1969
Reviewer Rating: four stars
Book Review by Edward F. McKeown

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Scattered throughout the globe of human-occupied space is evidence of a civilization that bestrode the galaxy before humanity was born. Now, a strange device has been discovered that shows the details of that great civilization. The details include a star map and hints that the High Ones are not extinct after all.

The map beckons, and humans, being what they are, will follow. To the next great step in human destiny–or ultimate disaster.

Robert Silverberg’s YA story of an archaeological expedition that comes face to face with the history they are studying is one of the best YA novels that I have read. It is told in an epistolary fashion through the device of “message cubes” that the protagonist, Tom Rice, a young graduate student on his first deep space expedition, is recording for his disabled telepathic sister left behind on Earth.

This mixed race expedition of humans and aliens is on the trail of the High Ones, a near God-like race that ruled the galaxy a billion years ago. Despite the high concepts of the book, ancient powerful aliens, machines that run for a billion years, Dyson spheres and more, it is in the down to Earth details of Tom Rice’s life and perceptions that the piece pulls you in. Tom is not a politically correct young man, which is in a way refreshing; he is having to deal with prejudices about aliens and artificial humans. He is snarky and over-opinionated. Tom reveals this aloud through the messages to his sister and one does see him develop as a human being both in tolerance and humility as the expedition plows forward into greater and greater danger and hardship.

One scene I did find a bit off-putting was his indifference to a young lady getting molested by another team member while they were uncovering a great discovery. While the incident is not a serious assault, and she wards off the hapless “lady’s man” with ease, it is none-the-less something that takes you a bit by surprise and reduced my identification with the character. The book was written before 1969 and like other movies and books is a product of its time and the attitudes then. Occasionally one can risk one’s POV character being a jerk (witness the scene in the 2004 movie Sideways where the character played by Paul Giamatti stole money from his mother) but it is a dangerous move in first person story. Still Silverberg makes it work.

His understanding of women and love grows also in the story starting out with some fairly typical and close to cliche interactions with Jan, who ends up being his girlfriend. But he is very young and how well did anyone of us understand the opposite gender at that age? So he is not unsympathetic in his fumbling toward romance and understanding.

From this more or less young “everyman’s” perspective we see the expedition uncover a series of finds that bring the long lost alien’s closer to our own time. Here Silverberg excels with the sense of wonder and excitement until we come face to face with working technology of the High Ones. But no discovery is without cost and a deadly one is extracted. Further discoveries abound until we stand on the edge of a new future that could imperil everything from the past and we learn that those we had looked on as near Gods, may have had feet of clay.

Across a Billion Years is an enjoyable read, perhaps a tad dated. There are areas you longed to see explored more, the artificial human female, Kelly occupies less of the book than I would have liked. We encounter AIs that seem to have some emotionalism, but that is also not explored. Still, there are only so many pages in a book and you have to choose characters and plot lines to follow and others to regretfully let slip by. I suppose the best thing you can say there is that you wanted more time with some of the characters and the milieu at the end of the book. Tom Rice may not start as someone you would necessarily seek out as a friend, but he ends as a young man you would be proud to know.

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